The coronavirus outbreak is a worldwide tragedy the like of which most of us have never seen, but while we’re doing our bit by staying home, football has really gone nowhere either.
Mitchell and Webb’s 2008 ‘Football’ sketch was always hilarious for its frank lampooning of the all-consuming nature of the sport and Sky Sports’ amplification of that. It still is, but it’s gained a slightly brutal irony since that fateful Friday 13th: the day when we could truly say, ‘The game’s gone’. Where once the line “The football is officially going really on forever” was what resonated, now there’s a certain fear that “It will never be decided who has finally won the football”.
For what it’s worth (not a lot, I know), I don’t think we’re going to see this season voided. Previously, I did, but having seen the fallout which has already ensued from the FA’s decision to do so from the seventh tier downwards – a decision 66 clubs are petitioning against – the penny has dropped on what an absolutely awful move it would be to expunge the records of the professional leagues. We’re 80% done, there is still loads at stake, and next season – which, in the event of voiding, would just be 2019/20 rerun – seems increasingly likely to be truncated as the coronavirus isn’t expected to simply disappear. Sure, contracts, sponsorships and TV deals will be obstacles, but they can’t be allowed to block the completion of the campaign. Only the other week, the FA pledged to get it finished with an indefinite extension, and they must work with the Premier League and EFL to get that done – however long we have to wait for the green light.
The Premier League are actually reported to be looking at playing out their remaining 92 fixtures in isolated camps in July, a solution which has attracted government support but will do little to dispel the notion that the game’s elite have become utterly desensitised by money – not that they’ll care, which is as sad as it is incensing. Still, if it can be implemented safely, this World Cup-style arrangement seems a valid means to an end and a lead which the EFL could follow. But we shall see.
I don’t want to discuss potential solutions to the biggest disruption the game has seen since the 1940s, though; I want to point out that discussing them during in the current climate is totally ok. Football hasn’t become less important; it’s just that something immeasurably more important has hit society like a tonne of bricks. It’s all relative.
I’m writing this not directly in response to but after an incredible outburst from one of the self-appointed guardians of the Gasroom (our forum) in which I was accused of failing to understand the severity of the pandemic simply because I was regularly commenting on a thread about what might happen to the season. Fancy posting about football on a football forum, eh! Thankfully, such butthurtness could scarcely have been more at odds with the prevailing attitude: it’s fucking fine to carry on talking about football. In fact, I’d say it should be encouraged.
Why’s that? Well, without meaning to get too philosophical, while life the act has necessarily come to a near-halt, life the experience must go on – if nothing else because we’d go stir-crazy if it didn’t. Fully taking in the wider situation and openly pondering and picking apart ‘what’s next’ for the game we love – as well as all the regular fat-chewing about every conceivable facet of it – are not mutually exclusive. A return to objective normality may be three to six months away, so it’s all the more important that we each try to maintain our own, subjective normality – and for a great many fans, football = normality.
While we can adhere to the government rules on social distancing, keep on washing our hands (I can feel the skin on my knuckles splitting as I type this) and caring for vulnerable family, friends and neighbours, there’s nothing we can do to help fight COVID-19 unless we’re key workers. So to continue enjoying our passion by indulging in the perpetual conversation which is such a fundamental part of it is not to ignore the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. It’s an inevitable collateral effect of a prolonged period of social distancing – on top of the widespread loss of income – that our mental health will be impacted, so you’ve got to do whatever it takes to look after yourself in that sense. For that reason alone, football might be even more important than usual right now (although it goes without saying that we deeply miss the actual sight of 22 people kicking a white spherical thing around a rectangular green thing).
It’s testament to football’s endurance that when the only semblance of ‘live’ action we’re seeing is players sharing their crunches and press-ups (and conspiracy theories) on Instagram, the conversation is as alive as ever. It’s retro and quiz-mania out there at the moment; there is no football, yet there is so much football to talk about. To say it’s only a game is the response of either a casual follower (which is fine) or someone who almost feels guilty about its importance to them – I sometimes say it myself as a coping strategy when I can no longer be arsed angrily dissecting a shocking defeat. To millions, football is genuinely and understandably more than a game and, while everyone has their own interpretation of how much more than a game it is, that doesn’t change in times of global crisis. We certainly shouldn’t feel guilty about holding such sentiments.
So we will keep openly longing for the day when football returns and debating what that might look like. We will keep reminiscing in countless ‘that time when…’s from years gone by. We will keep selecting our teams of the season. We will keep ourselves amused by the misfortunes of others on Netflix. Not as acts of defiance but because it’s normal.